I came across the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell when I was preparing to write my master thesis within the field of gender and security studies. This was the first time I heard about the Liberian women's peace movement that played a decisive role in bringing an end to the violent conflict that lasted from 1989 until 2003. In the heat of the war, women from all parts of the Liberian society came together in united action for peace.
I was moved by the strength and determination of the women that appeared in the documentary and at the same time I was curious to learn more about the movement. How had it been possible for these women to make their voices heard? How had the experiences from the movement influenced the way these women look at themselves and their own possibilities to influence politics?
Guided by these questions, I went to Liberia for 8 weeks in April and May 2010. I got the chance to talk to some of the key organizers of the women's movement. I soon realized that motherhood played a central role in the stories of these activists. As mothers, they felt that they could not just sit back and watch the suffering of their children. And more importantly, they realized that they could use their roles as mothers in their activism. They would approach the fighters as mothers approaching children. They would demand that the fighters listened to their mothers and asked them why they were causing their mothers all this suffering.
As a feminist, it is easy to be suspicious when women's roles as mothers are used as the basis for activism. There is an obvious risk that if women are portrayed as peaceful by nature they will be confined to the domestic sphere and prevented from gaining formal political influence. However, the Liberian example proves the opposite. In the first post-conflict election that was held in 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first democratically elected female president in Africa. Now, women in Liberia increasingly assume leadership positions in politics as well as in civil society. In order to understand how this was possible it is necessary to analyze how the activists themselves used the mothering role in their activism.
In Liberia, female peace activists stressed the disciplining aspects of motherhood. As mothers, they were used to making peace between their children and they were accustomed to thinking more carefully before making decisions because they are concerned about the well-being of their children. They treated the fighters as selfish and disobedient children and effectively portrayed themselves as the only ones that were capable of taking care of the country.
As one of the activists puts it: “we are your mothers, we are the caretakers […] so we can take care of the nation”.
This quote illustrates the interesting shift that has been taking place in Liberia. From mainly being seen as mothers and nurturers, women increasingly occupy a space in the public sphere. The way the women used their roles as mothers in the activism contributed to a shift in the meaning of motherhood to include a responsibility for the nation as a whole. Based on the experiences from the peace movement, the female activists claim that there is a need for women to participate at all levels in society. Women are described as less corrupt and as the ones that tell the truth and get things done. Increased female participation is seen as a guarantee to sustain the peace. In this way, the activists have managed to use their authority as mothers to expand their influence in the public sphere as well.
The aim of the peace movement was never explicitly to change gender relations; the aim was to do everything in their power as women to stop the war. The activists didn't openly challenge traditional women's roles. On the contrary, they conformed to accepted notions of feminine behavior by portraying themselves as peaceful nurturers praying for peace.
However, when they brought this traditional role into a new sphere of action and made their presence felt in the streets, at checkpoints, and at the peace talks, they shifted the meaning of this role. When women made their opinions known publicly, symbolism that had been associated with a submissive female role became associated with strength and determination.
I do not argue that the key to success in all peace struggles is to use motherhood as a platform for mobilization. And I do not claim that women are less corrupt and more peaceful because they (sometimes) are mothers. Instead, I would like to suggest that motherhood should be seen as a resource that can be used in peace activism. The impact of this strategy can have unpredicted consequences and is to a large extent dependent upon the creativity of the activists themselves.
Sara Arvidsson has a masters in Global Studies from Gothenburg University, Sweden. She got hooked on gender and peace issues as an intern at Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In her masters thesis she investigated how women's involvement in the peace movement has influenced women's possibilities for political agency. Sara's goal is to spread inspiration and optimism–both when it comes to creating peaceful societies and challenging oppressive gender norms.